Cincinnati, the “Queen City”. Maybe a place you’re familiar with, maybe a foreign word. Cincinnati, Ohio happens to be a special city where I grew up. I grew into the “me” I now know, here. It’s a place that you learn to miss, a shit-hole of a city that you find yourself always craving once more. I’m fond of the person Cincinnati allowed me to be, and the power the city holds.
Between the rad vintage at Casablanca, the feels-like-you’re-stealing-priced thrift stores of New-2-You and Valley Thrift, and the quintessential Iris Book Cafe on Main St. The cozy quirks within the single-street of Northside that’s home to Shake It Records, The Blue Jay Restaurant (featured in Yorgos Lanthimo’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” film), and the vegan SPOT - Happy Chicks Bakery, of god-sent croissant sandwiches that you mustn't ever leave the city without.
While acknowledging what the city does have, we can also address the many masks the city wears. It is the grimy depths of the original ‘hipster’ that we believe originated somewhere like Brooklyn, and the uppity soccer mom that sends her boys to have their hair trimmed every other week because she simply and absurdly has the money to do so.
In 1788, a few wealthy white men (we all know this to be true) bought hundreds of acres along the Ohio river. Alas, Cincinnati was born. According to Ohio History Central, “because it was located directly across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slaveholding state, Cincinnati was an ideal site to publish newspapers and anti-slavery tracts to send to the South. Ohio abolitionists concentrated their efforts in Cincinnati. This location meant that many fugitive slaves travelled across the Ohio River and through the city toward potential freedom in the North”.
However, we know that the association of a ‘free state’ is no stability for comfort or true freedom. Whites feared freedom of slaves would lead to lack of jobs, therefore, riots came to be common within the city. Irish and German immigrants, as well as those from both the north and south relocated to Cincinnati, lending a way for the city to become a hub of both diversity, yet dispute and turmoil.
From The African American Studies Center, “On Saturday 7 April 2001, an off-duty police officer identified nineteen-year-old Timothy Thomas on the street from a previous traffic stop and proceeded to call it in and pursue him on foot.
Thomas had warrants for his arrest for nonviolent offenses, consisting of fourteen misdemeanor counts, twelve of them for traffic violations. Patrolman Stephen Roach shot Thomas in the chest after being surprised by him in a dark alley”. Timothy Thomas’ death as well as Roger Owensby Jr.'s brutal death just six months prior, were just two leading incentives for the riots of 2001.
“Owensby was misidentified as a drug dealer and brutally killed by police forces. Owensby was the eleventh of fifteen black men who died while in custody of police from 1995 to 2000 in Cincinnati”.
Days later, Thomas’s mother orchestrated a protest of over 200 people, all demanding answers. Answers for her son, answers for their livelihood, and answers for the disregard of human life - none of them answered. A boycott of downtown shops was then exemplified. A quote from David Waddington, in his book Policing Public Disorder, essentially describes the synonymous reality that was occurring within Cincinnati.
Within the city, the reality is a social divide. Police forces aren’t mediating crime, they’re looking to create it. Food deserts inhabit a large part of the east side of downtown Cincinnati. So what exactly is a food desert? “An area, usually low-income, where residents don’t have access to affordable nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains”, according to Very Well Health. So what is the result? More or less, the progressive reallocation of underprivileged residents.
The locally-based chain, Kroger, was recently shut down and rebuilt further from these neighborhoods. From WCPO Cincinnati, “Kroger shut down a number of its Cincinnati stores in recent years -- stores in neighborhoods with significant populations of low-to-moderate-level-income residents and people of color”. Kroger, the city’s very own, claimed shut-downs were based on the 'inability to sufficiently create a profit'.
These longer commutes lead to more time necessary for shopping, less-frequent trips, and an overall inability to access a necessary means of food during a single trip. From Xavier University, “Researchers consider an area with a poverty rate above 20 percent without a grocery store within one kilometre walking distance an urban food desert”. Subsequently, food deserts leave residents in inconvenient and unrealistic situations to make proper trips to the grocery store, succumbing to convenience stores and gas stations for means of food.
We all know what shopping in convenience stores is like - extremely overpriced products. “By one estimate, they pay up to 37 percent more for the same exact products, typically because of higher operating and shipping costs inside the city”, according to Very Well Health. Food deserts are only progressing throughout the city, not to mention the increase of gentrification in such neighbourhoods.
Trendy boutiques, hip cafes, sports bars, not to mention a Stadium (!) hosting the city’s soccer team, in the middle of downtown. I’m sure it had to be built in this spot right? I’d like to hear the city’s explanation. From what I’ve mentioned above, I’m sure I could guess the means behind this decision.
I moved to the city in 2014, where I began my college career at the University of Cincinnati studying fashion design. In the beginning, I only yearned to leave. I hated the certain connotation Ohio projected, and didn’t believe it could give me the opportunities I needed in order to succeed within design.
Half the people I know in my field, omit the topic of where they’re from when talking to designers. You can kiss your chances goodbye if you aren’t studying at the ‘prestigious’ design schools. It took me an incredibly long time to be at peace with where I was from, who the city allowed me to become, and the certitude and sentience I learned to evoke.
The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati is a non-collecting museum designed by Zaha Hadid. It is an architectural beauty that allows for constant collaboration with creatives from around the world. In 1939, The Modern Art Society was formally founded by Betty Pollak Rauh, Peggy Frank Crawford and Rita Rentschler Cushman. Additionally, hosting artists in residence, live work, and VR are a large part of the museum’s executions. Independent from the handful of museums in the city, self-sustaining artist’s incorporate pop-ups around the city, one site in specific - a place close to home (literally), Rohs Street Cafe.
The cafe is located on Cincinnati’s campus in Clifton Heights, yet is fairly unassuming. Since 2003, the cafe has lent a space for comfort, an environment that doesn’t go unnoticed. I lived a street over from the cafe during my last few years of college, the cafe a mere 20 steps from me - I could see it from my bedroom window. Somehow, there is comfort in continuously knowing that something exists close to you, something attainable and physical, whilst the rest of our world feels precarious.
I will never forget the last time I went into the cafe with a good friend of mine in March, everyone’s air was cloudy, it was the first time it truly felt like no one could answer each others’ questions, none of them. We were left to acknowledge the visible void of response. The cafe closed indefinitely the following day.
Cincinnati has struggled with COVID, as has every city, but in its own way. The peculiar part is, no one will ever truly understand what another individuals’ city feels like during this time. This last year has felt more so like a bonding experience for us and our city - we unapologetically became good friends. We weep together, we pick each other’s brains until there’s nothing left, and we admire the bits and pieces we hadn’t acknowledged before, both the cracks and the mending.
Today, Rohs Street Cafe is open under proper safety measures. A friend and former colleague of mine, Nick Mason, blessed the city with his artwork within Rohs Street Cafe this past January of 2021. Nick’s work can be classified as neo-figurative / neo-expressionist, with a hint of DaDa.
Currently he is inspired (!) by artists such as Charlie Goering, Richard Diebenkorn, Emilio Villalba and Kenichi Hoshine.
T: How has your motivation to continue your art differed from that within the past (pre-covid)?
N: I found it really hard to motivate myself to make art during the pandemic. I actually did not make much art at all during 2020. My art felt irrelevant during a time of emergency – as if there were bigger things to worry about. My mind and time were occupied with so many other things. I found it to be a very therapeutic activity when I did make art, though.
T: Your work is in Rohs Street Cafe!! How has this resonated with you? How do you feel?
N: In early fall of 2020, I challenged myself to piece together a show for the Rohs St Cafe artist-in-residency for the month of January 2021. This deadline was this great forced motivation to get me back into art-making. I feel great about the show. Also, the process of curating the work was just as fun as making it: selecting which pieces to use, arranging them throughout the room, adjusting lighting, etc. It was a very exciting collaborative process with Jennifer Murray, who set the whole thing up. To see these paintings and drawings (some of which I had sadly kept in storage for months) together in a new context helped me to reflect on my artistic practice. To literally and figuratively take a step back to look at the work and talk about it with others was a great exercise. I am planning to do another show somewhere else soon!
T: What does your work as a whole say?
N: As far as my work / practice as a whole, while at times stylistically disparate, what links all of my work is a desire to learn, uncover, or reflect something about myself and the space around me at the time of making. Recording my ideas and memories in paint or graphite helps me process some of the emotions that elude conversation, written text, or other media.
You can find out more about Nick and his work on his website and Instagram. Keep up with his beautiful work! @nickbmason & nickbmason.com/artwork.
**Whilst acknowledging small businesses, the proper gratitude is necessary. Especially right now! Don’t forget to thank your local shops for all they do. Thank you Rohs Street Cafe!!